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Dummitt v. Crane Co. – Duty to Warn of Asbestos Exposure

We know that manufacturers of products sold in the U.S have a duty to warn consumers of potential risks. This is certainly true with makers of asbestos-laden products, particularly where users are at risk of exposure to deadly asbestos fibers or dust, which are toxic when breathed in. valve

But what duty do makers of non-asbestos products have to warn when there are asbestos-containing parts that are made by a third party but used in its non-asbestos product?

Recently, the New York Court of Appeals – the highest court in that state – took on this issue in Dummitt v. Crane Co.

Plaintiff was a U.S. Navy boiler technician from 1960 to 1977. He claimed to have developed mesothelioma (a condition caused by asbestos exposure) after coming in contact with asbestos-laden insulation used in defendant Crane Co.’s steam valves. But here’s where it gets tricky: The steam valves themselves did not contain asbestos. However, the company did recommend certain brands of insulation that did contain asbestos and in at least one case, marketed other companies’ asbestos-laden replacement parts under its own brand. Evidence was also presented showing the high-pressure valves, because of the high temperatures they reached, actually needed asbestos insulation to function at peak performance. Asbestos, although toxic, possesses superior heat resistant qualities.

Jurors at trial determined Crane Co.  could be liable for the asbestos-filled insulation used with their products, even though none of their own products at issue were made with asbestos. Crane Co. was found 99 percent liable. Initially, the damage award was $32 million, but that was later remitted to $8 million. On appeal, the state appellate court affirmed that verdict.

Recently, the New York Court of Appeals also affirmed, concluding that Crane Co. was liable for not warning consumers about the hazards of asbestos litigation.

The court also took the time to clarify, should this question come up again, the circumstances under which a manufacturer can be liable for a third-party product. Justices stated manufacturer has  duty to warn of danger arising from the known or reasonably foreseeable use of its product in combination with any third-party product which, as a matter of design, economic necessity or mechanics, is necessary to enable the original manufacturer’s product to function as it was intended.

So in this case, the fact that these boilers were reliant on the third-party product was central to the success of this mesothelioma lawsuit plaintiff.

In reaching its conclusion, the court spent a substantial amount of time considering the legal reasoning of Rastelli v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. That was a 1991 case also weighed by the New York Court of Appeals. Crane argued that the Rastelli precedent established no duty to warn. In Rastelli, the court ruled Goodyear wasn’t liable for a non-defective Goodyear tire that exploded when it was used with a compatible but defective rim made by a third-party.

The court did concede that a defendant’s lack of control over a third-party product significant mitigates the duty to warn, that duty isn’t entirely eliminated when manufacturer makes a product that can’t be used without another (defective) product.

Further, the court placed a greater responsibility on those who make “durable” products (i.e., valves) versus “fungible” products (i.e., packing, gaskets, etc.), finding that makers of durable products designed to be used continuously with certain fungible products are in the best position to ensure those who use the two products together get an adequate warning.

If you or a loved one is diagnosed with mesothelioma in Boston, call for a free and confidential appointment at 1-888-367-2900.

Additional Resources:

New York Court of Appeals Addresses the Duty to Warn of Asbestos Exposure, July 27, 2016, National Law Review

More Blog Entries:

Burnham Boiler Maker to Pay $28M in Two Asbestos Trials, July 28, 2016, Boston Mesothelioma Lawyer Blog